Archive for April 8, 2011

The roots of a literary heaven

April 8, 2011 7 comments

La petite femme, followed by L’orage. Two short-stories by Romain Gary. Not translated into English, as far as I know.

When I read Belle de Jour, Kessel’s style reminded me of Romain Gary. As I knew Gary admired Kessel a lot, I wanted to read the two short-stories written by Gary and published by Kessel in Gringoire, the news magazine he co-founded. They were published under his birth name, Roman Kacew. According to his biography, Gary refused to publish other texts in Gringoire after it professed anti-Semitic ideas in its pages, although he desperately needed the money. “Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là”, he said. (« I won’t eat that bread »)

Gary was living in Paris at the time, studying law and gathering with members of the Russian community and friends from Nice, the Agids. (They will be friends all their life; I like the idea of his fidelity to friendship). He begged to be introduced to Kessel, also Russian and I was curious to see if Gary tried to mimic Kessel, especially in early works.

So, let’s see what these stories are about.

La petite femme. (The Little Wife) published in Gringoire on May 24th, 1935.

Indochina. The road engineer Lacombe is having a hard time building a road through the bush. His wife comes from France to stay with him. One of his men tells the story and starts like this:

Oui, monsieur. C’était une toute petite femme. Blonde, frêle, maquillée, elle se promenait dans la brousse en fumant des cigarettes américaines et, au début, nul au monde ne l’aurait empêchée de changer de robe deux fois par jour. Yes, Sir. She was a very small woman. Blonde, slender, made-up, she wandered in the bush smoking American cigarettes, and at the beginning, no one could have stopped her from changing her dress twice a day.

I enjoy that kind of descriptions, I can picture her very well. In a few words, we imagine how bold (wandering alone in the bush!) and unusual (smoking American cigarettes!) this woman was. “Was”: the readers understand immediately that they will be told what became of her.

L’orage. (The Storm), published in Gringoire on February 15th, 1935.

Ils étaient installés dans l’île depuis quatre ans : le soleil du tropique avait tué en lui, l’homme, en elle, l’amour. They had been settled on the island for four years: the tropical sun had killed the man in him and love in her.

Doctor Partolle and his wife Hélène live on an island in the Pacific. It’s a day hot as hell, a storm is announced and hoped but it seems it will never come. Nobody visits them on this remote island, ever. So when a boat reaches their coast, it is an extraordinary event. A rough man named Pêche has come from a distant island to see Doctor Partolle for an important matter. Partolle is absent and Hélène welcomes Pêche, who is immediately attracted to her. He almost molests her but abruptly stops. Why? Why did he come? Why did he stop?

As I said earlier, I decided to read these stories to compare their style to Kessel’s style. Writing the review, I realise I forgot my original goal. What is most interesting in these two short stories is that they were written in 1935 before the war, when all the literary work by Gary was published after 1945. He was deeply changed by his experience as a soldier and haunted by the Holocaust. It came to my mind when I wondered why I found these short stories “lighter” than his later works. Gary’s themes (brotherhood, humanity, goodness, hope, love as a salvation…) are absent. However, his sense of humour is already there, showing up in the middle of a paragraph:

Son plus grand chagrin eut pour cause la mort de son pékinois ; il avait essayé de jouer avec un serpent. Mais les serpents sont d’humeur plutôt acerbe, et les plaisanteries, même les meilleures, sont perdues pour eux ; le pékinois paya de sa vie son besoin de société. La petite femme Her deepest grief was caused by the death of her Pekinese; he had tried to play with a snake. But snakes are usually in an acerbic mood and even the best jokes are lost for them; the Pekinese paid with his life his need of company. The Little Wife.

Strange that both short-stories take place on the other side of the world? No, very Gary to write about implacable heat in the cold of a French winter. Later, he will write about snow while he was knocked out by heat in Africa.

I could feel this is the work of a young man, on the verge of life and filled with the great expectations his mother had fed him with. After the war, his work will always have an underlying tone of despair as his hopes about humanity were smashed by the horrors of the war. Here, humour is for fun. Later, it will be a protection of the mind. La petite femme and L’orage are well constructed, with no useless detail and with a good sense of drama. I can tell that the roots of his literary heaven are already growing in these two little stories.

PS: Usually I don’t complain about the price of books, I consider that paperbacks are rather cheap in France, but really, €8,50 for 58 pages of short-stories is a little bit overrated.

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